Quakers and holidays

Episode 22 Quakers and holidays

In a timely post for December, we’re discussing the old Testimony Against Times & Seasons, aka holidays. Historically, Quakers did not do holidays. Every day is sacred. “This is the day the Lord has made.” Nowadays, most of us are fine with holidays.

Why Quakers didn’t do holidays

For some historical context, when Quakers were getting started in the mid-1600s, we were pretty darn Puritanical. We’ve mentioned this before. It was also common to celebrate basically anything by getting completely smashed. Think of Americans at St Patrick’s Day. While Quakers have gone back and forth a bit on alcohol, we’ve pretty much always held that getting trashed isn’t that great an idea. If holidays are about getting drunk, then no holidays.

On top of that, there’s a lot of stuff in Christmas celebration (decorated trees, Yule logs, mistletoe) and Easter (bunnies and decorated eggs) that’s flat-out Pagan. Puritans and Quakers wanted to purge anything Pagan from their practice. That’s also where the “we don’t say Friday” thing comes from (Friday = Freya’s Day). Often, early Quakers would say “heathenish” to refer to Catholic practices which they saw as coming from Pagan practices.

There’s also a belief in remembering the incarnation (Christmas) and resurrection (Easter) year-round, not just on certain days.

Christian versus secular Christmas

We have a brief interlude to explain the differences between religious and secular celebrations of Christmas.

Some Christians follow the Liturgical calendar. In this calendar, Advent is a season roughly 4 weeks long (starting on a Sunday) prior to December 25. This year, it’s December 3–24. Christmas is a season lasting 12 days, starting on December 25 and going until the Epiphany (which celebrates the visit by the three wise men). Advent is a season of expectant waiting. It’s a period for self-reflection, similar to Lent (the 40 days before Easter). In these traditions, it’s inappropriate to sing songs such as “Joy to the World” during Advent, because you’re still waiting. There is a separate set of songs for Advent, such as “Oh Come, Emmanuel.” Some traditional Episcopalians won’t put up a Christmas tree until Christmas Eve. The tree is often expected to stay up until Epiphany.

In mainstream society, Christmas is a season that ends on December 25. In the US, it starts the day after Thanksgiving, with Black Friday shopping. It is marked by stress. There are gifts to buy and to wrap. There’s the house to clean. There’s a feast to plan and prepare. There’s travel to arrange. Many people expect to have their trees and decorations put away by New Years Day. There’s just plain a lot of consumerism.

Quakers nowadays

Most Quakers do celebrate holidays now. It’s not unusual to find a Christmas tree somewhere in a meetinghouse, though Mackenzie was shocked to see one in the meetingroom at her meeting. Meetings will often take Christmas or Christmas Eve as an opportunity to have an extra meeting for worship.

Quaker celebrations of holidays may not seem all that different from mainstream celebrations. Some might contend we’re a little more low-key about it.

Some Quakers (and low-church non-Liturgical Protestants in general) are starting to see a value in the Liturgical calendar. The flip-side of “no, you’re supposed to remember those every day” is “but it’s easy to forget, so it helps to set aside a dedicated time.”

And when you’re in a Liberal Quaker meeting that actually has Quagans (Pagan Quakers) in it, “we don’t do that because Pagan” just doesn’t make sense.

The two of us?

People keep gifting us ornaments, so we’ve both had to figure out what to do with them.

Micah’s putting up a Christmas tree this year. He likes decorating and the smell of pine.

Mackenzie doesn’t really do holiday decorations. She resisted having anything like a Christmas tree for years, finally settling on a tree-shaped metal ornament display rack to satisfy her nagging Catholic mother. She might get around to putting it up at some point this month. Maybe.

We both give gifts.

Things we forgot to say

We talked a little bit after we stopped recording, so here are a couple other things:

  • Since we officially don’t follow the Liturgical calendar, we get Christmas music year round.
  • Mackenzie makes Ukrainian Easter eggs but tends to make them at weird times of year so they’re an ethnic art thing, not a religious thing.


Mackenzie: Welcome to Quaker Faith and Podcast, where we will explore traditional Quaker beliefs and the variety of Quaker beliefs found today.
Welcome back to Quaker Faith and Podcast, we’re your hosts Mackenzie and Micah, and today we’re going to be discussing the old time Quaker testimony against times and seasons.Micah: Which from my perspective fortunately is no longer really in effect. We’re pretty seasonal these days.

Mackenzie: Yeah, like I said old time. So, historically, way back in the beginning, Quakers had a thing against celebrating holidays. Every day is sacred, “This is the day the Lord has made” it says in one of the Psalms, and a lot of holidays in the 17th century, the way they were celebrated was “Let’s get drunk!”
And so Christmas was an excuse to get drunk the same way that Saint Patrick’s Day often is in America, and that did not meet with approval by Quakers or Puritans … And there’s also the whole thing about Pagan origins of things like Christmas trees.

Micah: Yep.
Yeah I think, and I’ve probably mentioned this before in previous podcasts, but something that a lot of modern day Quakers don’t know or appreciate is that the early Quakers were very much like Puritans in many respects. In fact, it’s been said that the Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England and the Quakers wanted to purify the Puritans.
And so actually there are a lot of things that we look back on today with being [inaudible 00:01:32] the Quakers and we say “Wow! They were really intense and really hardcore about all these crazy things.” Like they were against playing sports, they were against theater, they were against …

Mackenzie: Music.

Micah: Music! They were against all sorts of things, particularly basically any sort of entertainment beyond … I think it might have been William Penn who said “The right entertainments were things like gardening and studying mathematics.”

Mackenzie: See I just thought of that phrase “No more laughter, no more fun the Quaker meeting has begun.”

Micah: Right. Well that was sort of the vibe, and the thing is I think a lot of Quakers imagine that if they hear about this that they’re like “Whoa that’s really weird I wonder where that came from?” Why did Quakers believe this way?
The fact was that was the ambiance in a lot of the radical church at that time. Quakers were just like the Puritans on a huge proportion of their culture and their focus, so where Quakers got in fights with Puritans were on particular points of doctrine. But in terms of the sort of culture milieu, and their attitudes towards a lot of different things, Quakers were very very similar to Puritans.

Mackenzie: Right, and there’s still some denominations now that have the no holidays, or no Pagan parts of holidays thing going on. Like Jehovah’s Witnesses have issues with a lot of holidays, right?

Micah: Yeah, I think a lot of less mainstream religious groups tend to have issues with holidays. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’re the less mainstream ones, because to object to holidays, to object to the festivals that unite mainstream society is to put yourself on the margins. And that’s definitely something that the early Quakers did was put themselves on the margins immediately, and I want to say violently but that’s probably not the right word. Immediately and-

Mackenzie: Thoroughly.

Micah: Immediately, thoroughly and obnoxiously put themselves on the margins. When you read George Fox’s journal it seems like half the time he was just looking for excuses to get the crap kicked out of him.
This was one other way for Quakers to distinguish themselves from the corruption of the world around them, and that continued, that wasn’t just the first generation.

Mackenzie: I think at some point we mentioned how sometimes when early Quakers say “heathen” they mean like Catholic?

Micah: That’s certainly [crosstalk 00:04:01]

Mackenzie: Because a lot of the Christmas stuff, a lot of Christmas traditions, the way the Pagan aspects got in is because as the Catholic church in the Middle Ages and earlier like the Dark Ages was going across Europe and was like “Well can we keep our parties?”
“Okay fine, yes you can keep your parties.”

Micah: I think of how in Mexico, and certainly in other parts of Latin America, when the Catholic church came in suddenly there were these apparitions of Mary happening in places where goddesses had been worshiped previously, and Mary and the Saints sort of took the place of the previous deities. And in many cases you could argue, and certainly I think the early Quakers, if they had been watching this, would have argued that these saints and Mary and these different things were actually just a thin veneer on top of idol worship basically.

Mackenzie: Which is then also what they argued with Christmas versus Saturnalia or Yule –

Micah: Right.

Mackenzie: … because the Christmas tree comes from Yule trees, and there’s the Yule log, which keeps the Yule name. Mistletoe, there’s some story involving a goddess and a tree, I’m not quite sure.

Micah: Yeah.

Mackenzie: And then there was the Easter bunny and the eggs and all that stuff.

Micah: Oh, sure. And I think that that is still something that a lot of Christians, this isn’t particularly Quaker. I think a lot of Christians are skeptical of mainstream holidays. Not that we don’t want to celebrate them, but I myself, and I know other Christians that I’m friends with and that I follow, are skeptical not so much of holidays themselves but skeptical of the hollowing out and repurposing of holidays-

Mackenzie: This is where you get the conservative Christians with their cute Christ and Christmas campaigns.

Micah: Sure. It’s also where you get things where … I didn’t grow up with this, but I know that a lot of Evangelical Christians, they will have alternative things to Halloween. For example seeing Halloween as being demonic, but they’ll have harvest festivals and things like that serve as an alternative.

Mackenzie: Right. I had a neighbor when I was a teenager, like the last year I went to [inaudible 00:06:32] as a teen. We had a neighbor who had a little sign on their door that said “We do not celebrate this, and then there were scare quotes around it, ‘Holiday’, but come back some other time for cookies and bible verses.”

Micah: I think I just saw this on Twitter but it was really great. I saw a sign outside of someone’s house, I think a picture of it on Twitter that said “No ghosts in this house but the Holy Ghost.”

Mackenzie: Oh yeah, I saw that too.

Micah: I actually thought that was pretty clever. But I think that sign “No ghosts in this house but the Holy Ghost.” Is actually bringing it more to modern times now, and again not just limited to Quakers, but for some Christians in general the attitude has shifted to not denying holidays as such, but being concerned that the holidays reflect their liturgical role.

Mackenzie: That they’re kept in their proper place, sort of.

Micah: Right. For example, Christmas is the best example because it’s the most abused holiday in America, and in much of the world, and Christmas, in the popular use of Christmas, in primarily about consumerism. So consumerism and family are the two main things that Christmas is about, for America, right? But for Christians, there’s a season of Christmas, first there’s a season of Advent.

Mackenzie: Oh yeah.

Micah: Right? We’re actually right now, as of when we’re recording this it’s Saturday December 2nd.

Mackenzie: Officially Advent has not started yet, it starts tomorrow.

Micah: Advent starts tomorrow. As of when this is being recorded we are entering the season of advent, and for most of America this season we’re entering is the Christmas season. And it’s the season of increased anxiety, of increased-

Mackenzie: Shopping.

Micah: … of increased shopping, of focus on consumerism, focus on sort of getting every little thing done before the holidays.

Mackenzie: You need to have your house look perfect.

Micah: You need to have your house look perfect, all kinds of stuff, and not all of it bad. Putting up decorations, all sorts of preparations.

Mackenzie: Can I [inaudible 00:08:57] real quick?

Micah: Hang on just a second.
So in the Christian mind, and in the Christian tradition, Advent is not about any of those things, Advent is a time of self reflection, of contemplation, of purging. It’s really almost like another Lent. If you’re familiar with Lent, Lent is a time of laying down things in your life that separate you from God and purging yourself. And Advent is actually a similar time or purgation and waiting and stillness on God.
So there’s like completely different understanding of what Advent is about as opposed to what “The Christmas Season” is about.

Mackenzie: I was going to point out also that we said that tomorrow is when Advent starts, but Thanksgiving was last week and secular society, mainstream society, has already started the Christmas season … big pile of work to do, whereas that hasn’t officially started yet in the liturgical calendar.

Micah: Right. And you know something’s wrong when the Christmas season starts after Thanksgiving but we now see Christmas decorations and things after Halloween. So there’s a weird shifting of how capitalism is always expanding to increase its market share. It uses the “Christmas season” for that.

Mackenzie: I’m just remembering there being some joke about the war on Christmas, and how it’s Thanksgiving trying to protect Halloween from Christmas…

Micah: That’s about right. I hope this isn’t too far off track, but this is a side-note. Thanksgiving is definitely my favorite … if I’m gonna be following the world’s holiday’s so to speak, America’s holidays, Thanksgiving is my favorite worlds holiday because I feel like it’s the most pure.
It has not been overly commercialized. It focuses on family, and togetherness, and caring about people, serving your circle. And while that can be a little bit provincial, it doesn’t have a universal view … it’s pretty good to be together with your family and to love one another, and to give thanks, presumably to God. So, I like Thanksgiving pretty well of all the worldly holidays.

Mackenzie: Okay. So about Quakers today, we should switch over to. Nowadays you will not generally find many of us referring to it as “The Day the World Calls Christmas” like you will [crosstalk 00:11:29]

Micah: Except in jest.

Mackenzie: Yes, as jokes. So, you might see it on my twitter feed on Christmas, I might be like “Have a great “Day the World Calls Christmas” just for grins. And most of us now have Christmas trees and do the gift exchanges and things. I remember when I found out about Quakers when I was first getting into this, and I read the whole no holidays thing I asked the guy I was dating who was a Quaker how does that work? His birthday was Christmas Eve. His answer was “I’m fine with any holiday that involves presents.”

Micah: I do think that attitude, not to dog on him or anyone else because I also like things that involve presents, but I think that attitude is pretty in line with the world’s, or America’s, however you want to conceive it, understanding about what holidays are about. Which is mostly about enriching ourselves or taking care of people very close to us, and that’s better than how it was in George Fox’s time, when holidays were mostly about getting rip-roaring drunk and doing all kinds of crazy things.

Mackenzie: Things you wouldn’t do if you were sober.

Micah: Pretty much. Pretty much. So, today honestly I don’t think that Quakers have much difference in their celebration of holidays from anyone else in America. I don’t think you could probably find a statistical difference.

Mackenzie: I wonder who [inaudible 00:13:14] Christmas lights. I don’t know.

Micah: I don’t know.

Mackenzie: Personally I don’t put up a Christmas tree. I’ve never bought a Christmas tree. When I was in college my mom was always on my case.
“Why don’t you have a Christmas tree? Why don’t you have a Christmas tree?”
I don’t feel like it, I’m gonna be at your house at Christmas anyway, what do I need a tree at my place for? And now that I’m a grown-up with a house and things, she’s like “How about a Christmas tree? How about lights?” So I intentionally don’t have an outdoor outlet at my house, so I wouldn’t have to put lights up. I’d have an excuse. I’m not going to put up lights.
So actually I don’t do any holiday decorating. No lights…Well okay, so one little piece of decorating now because my mom always gives me ornaments for Christmas. I have this metal filigree thing that is tree shaped, it’s like two feet tall, it’s a display rack for ornaments, so I’ll put that up probably if I get around to it.

Micah: We’ve never had a tree, and part of that is that in previous years I was very resistant. My wife Faith wanted to have a tree. We’ve been married for 8 years now, and in the early years of our marriage she wanted a tree and I was like No we don’t need a tree. And it helped that we always went to Christmas with our families, and there’s a tree there maybe. But this year we’re gonna get a tree. And part of that-

Mackenzie: I thought you were gonna say and now that we have toddlers having a tree would be really inconvenient so there’s no argument anymore.

Micah: No, we’re gonna get a tree this year, we’re probably gonna buy it tomorrow actually, and it’s basically because we’re gonna be home for Christmas. So we’ll be able to enjoy it and it’s gonna smell nice. And we’re gonna put some ornaments on it that different family members have gotten us over the years because they thought we might have a tree.
So, that’s what that is. I guess for me I’m mostly interested in the smell of pine in the house, I think that’s gonna be nice. I know going in other people’s houses that have Christmas trees the smell of pine is very nice. So I’m looking forward to that.

Mackenzie: Okay. I always do the thing where you have the cinnamon and stuff on the stove.

Micah: Ah, yeah. That’s cool.

Mackenzie: Yeah that always smells nice.

Micah: So I feel like we’ve talked about the dangers of holidays, especially in the old days, 1650’s England. We’ve talked about the dangers of holidays, we’ve talked about-

Mackenzie: The corruptions of holidays.

Micah: The corruptions of holidays, we’ve talked about the nice things about holidays. The smell of pine, the smell of cinnamon, being together with family. These are all nice things. But are holidays useful to actually spiritually deepen our lives?

Mackenzie: The two sides that you get on that are that you have the old Quaker argument is that we’re supposed to remember Christ’s incarnation, Christ’s birth, every day and the resurrection Easter every day. So if you are only paying attention to them at certain times of year then you’re neglecting them the rest of the year.
And on the other hand, denominations with liturgical calendars, this is like a tongue twister, know if you’re supposed to do something every day it’s really easy to forget that, so having a special reminder at certain times of year can be helpful.

Micah: For me I think that this is something that is happening more broadly in the church, especially for people who are now in their 30’s or their 20’s. I think that younger people, I know certainly I and the people in my circles are, increasingly embracing the liturgical calendar. And these are people who are part of Protestant or in a Baptist or Quaker circles who traditionally did no do liturgy, or didn’t do it in any kind of intense way.
I feel like I am seeing a shift both in my life, and the lives of a lot of other people towards more embracing of the church calendar. Which includes Advent, which includes the actual Christmas season from Christmas till after New Years.

Mackenzie: [crosstalk 00:17:59]

Micah: Yeah.

Mackenzie: So the “Twelve Days of Christmas” refers to the 12 days that are the Christmas season, from December 25th to January 6th which is the epiphany.

Micah: Right, and then Advent and Holy Week. Holy Week culminating in Good Friday and Easter. And through the Pentecosts, the day of Pentecost and the Pentecost season. There’s sort of a whole-

Mackenzie: There’s Pentecost season?

Micah: Yeah, there’s Sunday after Pentecost, that’s how they count it.

Mackenzie: Oh, well yeah but that’s ordinary time.

Micah: Also there’s a Pentecost season.

Mackenzie: It’s called ordinary time.

Micah: Yeah. Well Mackenzie is going to call me out on my [inaudible 00:18:45]

Mackenzie: I used to be Catholic and I was an altar server so I had to have all the colors right too.

Micah: So time gets ordinary from Pentecost to Advent. We’re about to exit ordinary time, you don’t even have to set your clocks forward or backwards. We’re exiting ordinary time now. For me it’s been really valuable in the light.
Of course I need to remember Christ’s life, death, and resurrection every day, but it’s helpful to also have times when we focus on particular parts of the story. And whatever the Pagan origins, which they certainly are Pagan origins, Paganism precedes monotheistic faith and Christianity. And so Paganism had the chance to notice that hey there are seasons that are changing and we might want to respond to these, since life changes in winter as opposed to spring as opposed to summer as opposed to fall. So it’s only right, that’s the creation that God created, that those of us who come after Paganism also take notice of the seasons that affect our lives in very tangible, physical ways, and build our remembrance of God’s mighty deeds around them.
We celebrate Christmas on December 25th basically because it’s right around the winter solstice, when the day is the shortest. The light comes into the world when it’s darkest, and from there it gets lighter. It’s viscerally symbolic and it connects with our experience of every day. So I think that fact that these holidays, we have built them into literally the way the Earth turns, I think is actually really powerful.

Mackenzie: So the thing about Pagans just reminded me that there are a number of things that traditionally Quakers have held that were to avoid Pagan stuff. Including the no Christmas trees et cetera stuff and not calling it Friday because that’s named for Freyja the goddess, and things like that.
But I’m a liberal Quakers. In liberal Quakerism we have Quagans, we have Pagan Quakers.

Micah: Who’s [inaudible 00:21:11] first day?

Mackenzie: It doesn’t make any sense for liberal Quakers to be like “Oh well we can’t have Pagan stuff, with the Pagan sitting next to me.” That just comes off silly in my opinion.

Micah: Yep. Yup there’s a lot of silliness.

Mackenzie: So I still don’t do the liturgical calendar thing, and actually I think something that really threw me off coming to my current meeting, was the first time I walked in the meeting house in December and found there was a Christmas tree in the meeting room, because that I really didn’t expect. The meeting I went to before had one in the basement in December, like okay whatever, but having it in the meeting room really surprised me.
I don’t object to Christmas trees all around, but I feel like the one my old Catholic church would have in the lobby that had the tags for buying gifts for kids whose families were otherwise not going to be able to buy gifts, that I think is an awesome thing, that’s a great charitable thing to do. So especially if that’s what you’re doing with a Christmas tree in your meeting house that sounds awesome. It’s just the decorative thing that I find off because we don’t have anything else in meeting houses that are decorative.

Micah: Yep. I have to be honest, the hijacking of Christmas into a consumerist thing is really disgusting to me but the old Pagan stuff doesn’t bother me at all. It’s basically like vestiges of our tribal past from like Northern Europe basically. I don’t have any problem with that, it’s just sort of a cultural thing. Like do I have problems with hats, or with women wearing skirts, or with us eating oatmeal?
These are just things we do because we’ve done them for a long time, we’ve passed them down, it’s sort of a thing we do and it makes us feel comfortable and in our space.

Mackenzie: Did you pick oatmeal because we’re Quakers?

Micah: Yeah, a lot of people still think we make the oatmeal.

Mackenzie: We don’t, we don’t, they’re name thieves.

Micah: They’re just using our good name.

Mackenzie: You can find us on the web at QuakerPodcast.org, as Quaker Podcast on Twitter, Facebook, or Patreon, and on iTunes.